Wednesday, August 20, 2003

A young woman I know got the last bus out of New York before the big blackout of ‘03. When the bus hadn’t arrived in Washington nearly an hour after it was scheduled, we began asking why. Nobody knew when to expect it or even if it was on the way.

Nobody thoughtthis unusual.Bus terminals frequently wear the ambience ofaThird Worldwarehouse— cheap, inefficient and lacking most of the amenities availableat airportsand even train stations. It’s (shhhhh!) a class issue.

But, what made this particular bus unusual was that when it finally pulled in, no one on it had heard about the blackout. None of the cellphones which ordinarily grow out of every tee-nage ear seemed to have been on the bus. It was a unique oasis of silence in the world of the wired. When I took a bus on Cape Cod earlier in the summer, passengers chattered all around me, telling friends and family who was on time and who wasn’t. Passengers exchanged information about weather, ferry crossings and traffic jams.

Even where posted signs ask that cellphones be turned off, as in doctor’s offices and in public spaces, they often aren’t. The latest phenomena with cellphones are “flash mobs,” sometimes mislabeled as “smart mobs,” the geek chic of the summer culture. Messages organize strangers to meet at a certain place at a certain time to engage in pointless performance. Organizers use e-mails, cellphones, pagers, Palm Pilots and Blackberrys to spread a network of young men and women with time on their hands. Well, why not? Their parents and grandparents were goldfish swallowers and panty raiders.

These frivolous flockers arrive to recite nonsensical syllables, cry out bird calls, liberate balloons of a specified color, or rush into a store to ask for a certain commodity. More than a hundred New Yorkers descended on Macy’s in Manhattan the other day and went to the Oriental carpet department to demand to see “love rugs for the commune.” After 10 minutes of oooing and ahhhing over a $10,000 carpet, they disappeared, as if on a magic carpet, never to see each other again. Salesmen were mystified.

A photographer who documents and publicizes flash mobs on a Web site describes himself as someone who likes “anything that shakes people up from their normal routine.” The slogan of a Minneapolis mob was “Who says you Can’t Have Fun with 200 Strangers?”

This could be chalked up to the silliness of summer, “gorilla” theater as monkey business, sound if not fury, without meaning. But its foundations are rooted in a serious application of the power of technology, for good or ill. The prophet and observer of the phenomena is Howard Rheingold, whose book, “Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution,” should be required reading for anyone wary of using technology to galvanize groups of people with or without motive, leader or ideology.

He cites President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines as the first head of state to be deposed by a flash mob. More than a million Manila residents, mobilized over four days by electronic text messages, pulled him down in 1999. Flash mobs were responsible for the Miss World riots in Nigeria that led to many deaths.

More than 400,000 young people in Brazil have joined a nebulous group called “Blah” to flirt with others clutching Palm Pilots, communicating in digital texts without knowing whether the persons they flirt with may be standing next to them (or miles away). Japanese teenagers walk down the street and through school hallways punching in text rather than talking. Adults can’t hear them, and that’s the point.

Flash mobs can be decentralized for political campaigns. Karl Rove used his Blackberry to dispatch Republican workers to get out the vote for George W. Bush. The anti-globalization folks use such devices for getting out their demonstrators.

Appropriately,Howard Rheingold was once editor of The Whole Earth Review, a magazine offering ” access to tools” to help people control their lives in the spirit of freedom and knowledge. His ideas go back to Emerson, the 19th century essayist who appealed to American “self-reliance.”

He writes as skeptic, critic and a defender of the potential inherent in the networks of emerging technologies. “I have used the term ‘smart mobs,” he writes, “because I believe the time is right to combine conscious cooperation, the fun kind, with the unconscious reciprocal altruism that is rooted in our genes.” But the beneficial use of these technologies won’t emerge unless we pay close attention to their dangers and opportunities.

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